by Bridgit Brown
I remember when the city claimed the corner of Whittier and Tremont streets in Roxbury, pushing the old Connolly’s Tavern off the block. The move caused a raucous because for a lot of people, Connolly’s preserved the living memory of what Lower Roxbury used to be like when the spirit of jazz lingered in the air. Folk like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Roy Eldridge, Tony Williams, and many other jazz greats played a number of sets at the funky little joint that managed to withstand fifty-five years in the community. But that did not stop the city from leveling it to the ground and fencing in the area back in1997.
Since then, I have passed the vacant lot on foot or by car many times while noticing the overgrown bush, weeds, and rubbish caught at the base of the wired fence. All too often, I have rolled my eyes at the sight, sighed, and asked, “When are they going to finally do something about that? And what will it be when they do?”
Back in April of 2007, the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved a proposed plan to develop the space into a project that would house the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, a theater, a school, office space, shops, restaurants, a parking garage, and housing. I was really excited about this because in my life-time, no such megaplex ever existed in Roxbury. So I waited for the groundbreaking ceremony to commence, without asking who was going to do it or how. It just seemed too good to be true.
But in November, 2008, the Boston Redevelopment Authority rescinded its approval of the project, and it all just seemed so familiar to me. Six months later, and with the support of hundreds of community members, the Boston Redevelopment Authority appeared in Roxbury to explain their reasons for cancelling the project, citing that the developers did not meet requirements for development of the site in the time that they were given. At this point, I didn’t know who to blame and so I just stopped listening and hoped for something to give.
Eventually, Mayor Thomas Menino, came into the ‘hood to announce that the city had voted to re-designating the project to the developers on the basis that they use the following 18-months to make things happen. After that, I decided that it was time to meet with Barry Gaither, executive director, of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. I wanted to be assured that the project was going to happen and I figured he would be the one to ask about it. He gave me an earful about the plan to develop what the city has been calling Parcel 3 or what folk like me call the place where Connolly’s used to be.
Through the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Gaither has helped to forge a for-profit development firm known as Elma Lewis Partners. This group will soon begin building a mega-structure on Parcel 3 and though they have been calling it “Ruggles Place” for now, Barry said that it will be a manifestation of the vision of the late Roxbury native, artist, and activist Elma Lewis.
Lewis founded the Center in 1968 and at her helm it conducted a series of programs that directly paralleled the teaching curriculum of the now-defunct Elma Lewis School for the Arts, which was built around the artistic heritage of the global black world. The National Center of Afro-American Artists, currently located on Walnut Avenue in Roxbury, was historically the umbrella organization beneath which stood the Lewis School, two dance companies, a playwrights workshop, a children and adult’s theater company, and even a mime company. The institution also had a big band, youth and adult choral groups, and I had no idea that when Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Michael Babatunde Olatanje came to Boston it was on the behalf of the Center.
Elma Lewis Partners will own and manage Ruggles Place, which is due to be completed by 2011. The National Center of Afro-American Artists will move its headquarters from Walnut Avenue to the new location where it will continue its mission to be the leading institution in Boston for, by, and about the art of the people representing the African Diaspora.
As a poet, writer, Roxbury native, and someone who has been longing for a major institution that will allow my artistic endeavors to germinate and grow beyond my own capabilities, this seems very much like the explosive part of a dream deferred that the poet Langston Hughes talked about in his poem called “A Dream Deferred”. It is also a great relief to know that this will all be happening in my own back yard.
As for the memory of Connolly’s, and the empty spaces in between, let a joyful noise replace the dirges for Ruggles Place will soon be on the rise and as Barry stressed during my time with him, it will be in line with what the people have been imagining for themselves for quite some time now.